OPINION

Was the Most Celebrated Heroine of Literature Really Beautiful?

August 15, 2006
Mayank Austen Soofi

Source: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Beauty Talk

Lizzie was apparently a 'reputed beauty'; tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt single men of large fortune like Mr Darcy, the hero of Pride and Prejudice.

The Origins of Ms Elizabeth Bennet

Elizabeth did not look more than twenty; she herself claimed that she was 'not one-and-twenty'. Second of the five sisters, Lizzie was the daughter of a gentleman who had an estate in the village of Hertfordshire; but her mother was of low birth - merely an attorney's daughter.

A Mother's Disdain

Mrs Bennet, a lady of mean understanding and little information, always blamed her husband for giving preference to Lizzie when she not a bit better than the rest of her four daughters. The mother believed Lizzie to be not half so handsome as Jane the eldest, nor half so good humored as Lydia, her favorite child.

Impressions of Mr Darcy - The Man who Matters

Although not being enough of a beauty to be worthy of a celebrated heroine, Mr Darcy, unlike the hasty judgment he had formed during his earlier meetings with Lizzie (once he inappropriately said, "She a beauty! I should as soon call her (foolish) mother a wit!"), later allowed himself to temper his impressions. During one of the balls, he actually found himself agreeably engaged on meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty Ms Bennet bestowed!

Lizzie as an Athlete

Lizzie also happened to be a good walker and could cross fields after fields in the country; she was used to jumping over stiles, and was quick enough to spring over puddles after rainy mornings with an impatient activity that made her face glow with the warmth of exercise.

Once even Mr Darcy was moved enough to admire the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion. His penetrating observation could not even miss the shine of her fine eyes which were brightened in the process.

Was Elizabeth a Shrewd Catty Woman?

Her athletic inclinations failed to obtain favor with Ms Caroline Bingley, the snobbish and stylish sister of Mr Bingley. This Mr Bingley was a close friend of Mr Darcy. He was falling in love with the certainly-beautiful Ms Jane Bennet, Lizzie's eldest sister.

"She has nothing to recommend her, but being an excellent walker" was the cold-hearted assessment of our heroine by the elegant Ms Bingley, who had cultivated her manners in the higher echelons of the London society. She felt that Lizzie had a tendency to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum. Elizabeth was consequently categorized as one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex, by undervaluing their own, a very mean art indeed!

But it is advisable not to consider Ms Bingley's remarks only, for she herself had plans for Mr Darcy and perhaps perceiving him to be drawn towards Lizzie, she could have constructed her views about her rival under the despicable influence of that negative emotion called jealousy.

However we must come back to the subject of the outward appearance of Ms Bennet and not busy ourselves with laying down conjectures about her manners and wit.

Not From London, And Yet...

Elizabeth Bennet might be country lass, unfamiliar with the cosmopolitan charms of the London society, but she could hold her own while in company with refined gentlemen of great families. Once while dancing with Mr Darcy, it did not escape the notice of anyone present in the ball to deduce that such superior dancing was not often seen. Although Mr Darcy belonged to the first circles, Lizzie did not disgrace him as his fair dancing partner.

Did Ms Elizabeth Bennet's Suitors See Any Beauty in Her?

It was true that Jane was the most beautiful of the Bennet sisters, and there were no fixed opinion on the second most beautiful, but such complexities were not to be the burden of a clergyman called Mr Collins.

Mr Collins, who was to inherit Mr Bennet's property after his death, was not a sensible man but we would assume that this lack of sense was not the factor which prompted him to decide Lizzie as the most beautiful after Jane, and which consequently interested him in singling out our heroine as the companion of his future (and silly) life.

Doubts Concerning Lizzie's Looks

However there are certain hints which disturb us with considerable apprehensions about the supposedly brilliant complexion and fine eyes of Ms Bennet. Remember, these were the opinions of Mr Darcy and could it be prudent to accept the reasoning of a heart which was, albeit unwillingly, falling for our heroine?

Any admirer of Ms Bennet who strongly feels about her abundance of physical attractiveness would certainly be alarmed by the details of the marriage proposal that was eventually forwarded by the stupid Mr Collins to our beauty.

His reasons for intending to marry Lizzie were many, as he explained to her in their private audience that was set up after a breakfast one morning.

Mr Collins, being a clergyman, obviously wanted to set the example of matrimony in his parish, besides he wanted to choose an active, useful sort of a gentlewoman, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way.

These were qualities that Lizzie certainly possessed but the idiot Mr Collins failed to insert any word about the beauty of Ms Bennet while laying bare his heart in a most animated language that was so strongly stirred by the violence of his affection!

No doubt Ms Bennet rejected him in spite of being very sensible of the honor of his proposals.

The suspense remains that Mr Collins merely forgot to pay complements to Lizzie's beauty owing to some nervousness not unusual in such anxious occasions, or because Lizzie was of too plain looks to deserve them in the first place.

Missing - Evidences of Ms Bennet's Beauty

Later as the events proceeded, as Lizzie was introduced to the supremely-arrogant aunt of Mr Darcy - Lady Catherine de Borough - who was eyeing him as a possible husband for her invalid daughter perceived Lizzie as merely a obstinate, headstrong girl.

Strangely, when it was Mr Darcy's turn to propose to Elizabeth, missing were his earlier observations about her eyes-and-complexions. While declaring that how ardently he admired and loved Lizzie, he chose to maintain silence on the appeal of her looks. He was quite eloquent about her inferiority and her dismal family connections in the proposal speech, though.

We were not surprised that Lizzie rejected him, too. But her reasons were different. She was agitated and upset with Mr Darcy for being the principal means of dividing her good sister Jane from the affection of Mr Bingley.

Elizabeth's Attractiveness - Doubts Remain

So, what did Ms Elizabeth Bennet look like? What was the shape of her chin? How was the curve of her lips? What was the color of her hair? Could she be ugly?

These are queries which would remain unanswered.

However we do have a particularly detailed description of her features from the eye-witness accounts of Ms Caroline Bingley. Considering that she was a rival suitor to Mr Darcy, the claims must be taken with a barrel of salt.

Ms Bingley never could see any beauty in our heroine. Lizzie's face was thin; her complexion had no brilliancy (this runs in contrast to Mr Darcy's feelings); and her features were not at all handsome. Her nose wanted character; there was nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth, it must be admitted, were tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her celebrated eyes, which were sometimes described as so fine, an envious Ms Bingley could not perceive anything extraordinary in them.

These are harsh words indeed for English literature's most celebrated heroine, even if they are coming from a spurned woman!

But it would be a sensible for all of us who so adore Ms Bennet to leave the last word about her beauty to the man who would later marry her: In the words of Mr Darcy - "I had thought her pretty at one time, but that was when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest woman of my acquaintance".


Mayank Austen Soofi owns a private library and four blogs: The Delhi Walla, Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos. Contact: mayankaustensoofi@gmail.com
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Was the Most Celebrated Heroine of Literature Really Beautiful?

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Author: Mayank Austen Soofi

 

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